Saturday, August 18. Backstage at Portland’s Newmark Theater at FloatCon 2018: I’m miked up, and I’m amped up. Wandering around and then dancing around, shrugging my shoulders, shaking out my hands, trying to slough off the energy that is surging like a tsunami through my body.
I’m about to go onstage and talk in front of several hundred people. And I’ve just rewritten key portions of it in response to the first lecture of the day, by neuroscientist and leading float researcher Justin Feinstein – because, omg, I could be the poster child for his description of the benefits of floating on people with chronic pain, anxiety, etc.
So now I’ve abandoned my fully scripted talk and I’m planning to walk onstage with a handful of scribbled index cards. Yeah, I’m gonna wing it.
Have I mentioned that I have lifelong anxiety around public speaking? I should be scared shitless, and a part of me is, but another part of me is eerily calm, just focused on managing the crazy energy that’s surging through my body.
But here’s the thing: it’s not even that I’m nervous about public speaking, though I am. It’s that I’m about to speak publicly for the first time about my crash-burn-and-return from chronic pain and anxiety. This feels huge to me.
So, yeah, I’m a pretty freaked out, and yet I know with every fiber of my being that I must do this. Because telling my story in front of hundreds of people is going to change my life.
I listen to Ashkahn Jahromi introduce me. I take a deep breath, kick off my shoes, and walk onto the stage.
Hello, floating friends! My name is Jennifer. I’m a writer. A maker. A professional wanderer.
I’m also a floater, and I’m here today to share my personal float story with you.
If you’d met me ten years ago, you would have seen a picture of success: PhD in history; awards for teaching, dissertation, scholarly book; high-powered humanities institute job in the University of California system. Beneath the surface, however, at the cellular level, at the psychic level, some seriously baaaad stuff was happening to me.
If you’d met me five years ago, you would have encountered a woman completely undone by chronic pain and fatigue, someone who had finally given up trying to maintain a “normal” life in the face of fibromyalgia and misdiagnosed and untreated hypothyroid. I was seriously swirling the toilet bowl, and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out alive.
Luckily, we are meeting NOW and I am so grateful to be here today to say that floating was the first big step on a healing journey that gave me my life back – and I feel more truly myself than I did before my crash-and-burn.
The rest of my talk is mostly a blur, but eight minutes later, people are clapping, there are a couple of wolf whistles, and then I’m backstage on the opposite side of the theater, unable to figure out how to get back to my shoes – and giddy with a mix of relief and triumph. I’m pretty sure I nailed it.
In 2016 I joined some friends in choosing a Word-for-the-Year. But of course, I could not choose just one word. Three words called to me, and I went back and forth before deciding that 2016 was going to be a really big year for me and I needed more than one word. And as it turned out, I carried those three words over into 2017 as well, and they’ve now become my forever words, my personal ABCs: Authentic. Brave. Committed.
Those were the words I called on the morning of my talk. Because, truth be told, there was a moment (well, more like five minutes) when I was thinking seriously of not showing up at all, just texting Ashkahn to say – what? I don’t even know. I just knew that the prospect of sharing my story had me on the verge of a massive meltdown.
So, talking myself down from the ledge: I reminded myself that as long as I was authentic, brave and committed, everything would be fine. That had been the case for the past three years, and it would be the case on the FloatCon stage. I talked to myself in the mirror, tears rolling down my face, and I promised myself two things: 1) the actual words I spoke would be less important than the energy I brought onto the stage, and 2) that energy was my authenticity, and it would connect me with the people I needed to be connected with.
And that’s exactly what happened.
After my FloatCon talk, I am escorted up to an open space for Q&A, and I get some time to replay a few cringe-worthy, adrenalin-sparked overshares. Across the room, a knot of people approach one of the other speakers, and I begin thinking maybe nobody will come talk to me…. I was too wired, too weird, too woowoo. I should have worn my shoes on stage.
But before I can go too deeply into my shame spiral, two guys walk up to me, and then a third, and we have a fabulous conversation about floating and wandering and soul retrieval journeys and so much more. They become my conference buddies, and I think we might end up doing some good work in the world together.
Over the next two days, dozens of people come up to thank me for sharing my story. One woman even invites me to speak at her float center. Wow, crazy, right?
I brought my energy, and it connected me with the people I needed to connect with.
I may need to add a fourth word: Trust.